John Pearse

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A latter-day disciple of the Piedmont blues tradition pioneered by Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Blake, session guitarist and producer John Pearse emerged as a veritable cottage industry at the zenith of…
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A latter-day disciple of the Piedmont blues tradition pioneered by Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Blake, session guitarist and producer John Pearse emerged as a veritable cottage industry at the zenith of Britain's folk revival -- as host of the BBC2 television series Hold Down a Chord, he taught a generation of aspiring guitarists how to play, later lending his name to a series of instructional books as well as a line of strings and related accessories. Born September 12, 1939, in Yorkshire, England, Pearse grew up in North Wales, where his father managed a hotel -- by 15 he was playing banjo and guitar in a local jazz band, and at 17 he relocated to London to further his musical aspirations. When American blues legend Big Bill Broonzy toured Europe in 1957, Pearse followed the guitarist on several dates, learning from him the rudiments of the Piedmont style. Although Pearse adhered to the hallmarks of Piedmont blues, a style typified by a fingerpicked syncopated melody line contrasted against a rocking bassline plucked by the thumb, over time he refined his approach to include remarkable single-string runs and complex, ragtime-inspired melodies, forging an identity all his own. In 1958 Pearse completed his first tutorial, Teach Yourself Folk Guitar, and a year later he was hired to teach classes at Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. By the mid-'60s Pearse was regularly headlining London folk clubs, and in 1965 he teamed with the duo of Colin Wilkie and Shirley Hart along with Alex Campbell for the album Sing Folk. Folk 66, a second collaboration with Wilkie and Hart, soon followed.

While on tour in Germany, Pearse received a phone call from BBC producer Victor Poole, who proposed an instructional television series based on Teach Yourself Folk Guitar -- together they developed Hold Down a Chord for the fledgling BBC2 channel. First broadcast in 1965, the program emphasized fundamentals like scales, tablature notation, fingerpicking, and vibrato, and despite the chart prominence of three-chord rock & roll, Hold Down a Chord proved an unlikely hit, inspiring multiple generations of viewers to study guitar. Pearse also updated his earlier tutorial book under the Hold Down a Chord title, and during its first year of publication the guide went back to press four times. Soon after the series debuted, the British Music Strings company approached Pearse with a contract to license his name for a line of guitar strings. After spending two years in research and development to create strings with a more accurate vibrating and nodal pattern, he finally signed on the dotted line. Much to Pearse's dismay, however, the resulting product proved far inferior to the strings he developed in the lab, and he wriggled free of the British Music Strings agreement to start his own business, acquiring an antique treadle-operated string-winding machine and some steel stock. More than a decade later, Pearse signed with American guitar manufacturer C.F. Martin and Company to mass-produce accessories based on his homemade gear. In 1978 he even relocated to the U.S. to serve as a consultant to the firm, but resigned two years later to found the Breezy Ridge Instruments brand with his wife, dulcimer virtuoso Mary Faith Rhoads.

Although Pearse recorded just a handful of records under his own name, he was for many years an in-demand session player, contributing to dozens of LPs issued by Warner Bros. and Capitol. He served largely (and often anonymously) as a "track sweetener," overdubbing or re-recording guitar parts originally played by lesser musicians. Pearse also published several additional instructional books, including Ragtime and Counterpoint Guitar Method, The Guitarist's Picture Chord Encyclopedia, and The Penguin Folk Guitar Manual alongside tutorials for the banjo, ukulele, and dulcimer. In 1970 he even played the role of a Russian balalaika player in the Billy Wilder film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. In 1982 Pearse remade Hold Down the Chord in color for U.S. public broadcasting -- however, the following year a botched myelogram procedure left him paralyzed from the neck down, with little chance he would ever play music again. Within 18 months Pearse was walking, and he spent years in intense physical therapy to recapture his skills as a guitarist. In the meantime, he explored new interests, including wine, and in 1986 he reunited with PBS to produce the television series Cooking with Wine. An accompanying book was a bestseller, and helped fund another guitar tutorial series, this one titled String Along with John Pearse. In 2002 he finally resumed his performing career, later self-releasing the CD Live in Kutztown. Pearse died October 31, 2008, at the age of 69.